Suleiman’s Dream

                                                           

Suleiman placed the steaming bowl of couscous on my desk. Although the bowl was covered tightly by aluminum foil, some of the spice-laden aroma escaped, wafting in the air, scenting my Cicero Avenue office like a Saharan oasis. He presented the couscous to me as a gesture of deep and heart-felt thanks. The agency where I served as Executive Director, the Polish Welfare Association, had recently and successfully processed his papers under the amnesty program. Suleiman could now come out of the shadows, and proudly say that he was now a legal resident of the United States.

As a youth in his hometown of Rabat, Morocco, Suleiman would talk to American travelers who would stop at his father’s pistachio kiosk in the souk. They told him about the cities and towns where they lived, and how America was the land of opportunity for everyone. Unlike many of his friends who sought to better their lives in France, Suleiman always hoped to find a chance to live in the United States   

After finding employment on a cruise ship at the age of twenty, Suleiman worked four years in the ship’s galley. After the end of a cruise in Ft. Lauderdale, Suleiman never returned to the ship, illegally entering the United States in 1972. For years he found work mostly in restaurants and bakeries in Chicago, where his cousin lived. He met his wife, Agniezkca, working at a Polish bakery in the Avondale neighborhood. She came to Chicago in 1975 from Poland, sponsored by her brother who owned the bakery. When they wed in 1983, she already was a naturalized citizen after having received immigration counseling from Polish Welfare.

Agnieszka brought her husband to our agency because she knew that he would qualify for amnesty under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. The Polish Welfare Association was an INS approved processing center, the most popular agency in Chicago for the Polish community to participate in the legalization program. Each day, the agency was inundated with clients making their applications for the program.  Although the vast majority of clients were Poles, about 15% came from other countries. Suleiman was one of the 5300 people legalized by Polish Welfare during the twelve months of the amnesty program.   

Suleiman, a magnificent cook and pastry chef, had a fervent dream of one day opening his own restaurant. He enrolled in a community college course and learned how to prepare a business plan. However he feared taking that plan to a bank because of his illegal status. The amnesty program, and his subsequent legalization, permitted him to move forward and approach a bank for a business loan. He secured that loan and put down a down payment for a restaurant downstate. I guess sometimes in life dreams do come true.

 

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Bleacher Days at Wrigley

                                                         

I asked my dad if we could buy a couple of chewing tobacco pouches for Hank Sauer. At first he resisted, saying that we shouldn’t be feeding a man’s bad habits. Eventually he caved in to my request, and we picked up two pouches of Red Devil at the convenience store on Addison across the street from the ballpark.

In the summer of 1953, Hank Sauer was still the big slugger on the Cubs. Ernie Banks didn’t come up until September of that year. Sauer, a tall, wad-chewing gawky guy, played left field and it had become customary to toss pouches of chewing tobacco out to him from the bleachers when he returned to his position after hitting a home run in the preceding inning.

My dad had Fridays off that summer from his job at the post office. Since Wrigley Field didn’t have lights then, the Cubs played only day games at home. Each Friday the Cubs were in town, he took me to the ballgame. We traveled first on the red Roosevelt Road streetcar from our Lawndale two-flat, heading downtown to catch the subway/el train that would take us north to Addison Street and Wrigley Field.

As a seven-year boy, there was nothing better to spend the entire day with my dad. He was extremely knowledgeable about baseball history and experienced much of that history himself. He recalled seeing Ruth and Gehrig play at the first All-Star Game at Comiskey Park in 1933. He also witnessed the verbal abuse hurled at Jackie Robinson by both fans and Cub players in a game at Wrigley Field in 1948. Sadly, it reminded him of similar abuse that he experienced at being one of the first Jewish workers at the Main Post Office in the late 1930s.

The bleacher gates at Wrigley opened about two hours before the game started at about 1:30.  But we got in line at 10:30 in the morning, because my dad wanted a bleacher bench in the back row that had a concrete slab to lean his bad back against.

We always enjoyed watching both teams take batting practice sitting on our bench high above the beautiful ivy-covered walls. I even caught a ball hit into the bleachers with my mitt on the fly one game that summer. The Cubs were terrible that year and fans had low expectations of the team. It seemed that shortstop Roy Smalley made at least one error in every game that I saw.

I kept score of each play on my scorecard. My dad taught me all the symbols to place on the card. Before the game I penciled in the lineup that was announced over the public address system by an elderly man named Pat Piper, who sat the entire game on a stool in front of a box seat below the ball net. He always seemed to be walking up to the home plate umpire and replenishing him with baseballs.  

After each game, we walked up to Irving Park Road where my dad would get a treatment for his back from a chiropractor. I waited for him patiently, reviewing the marks that I made on the scorecard. When he was finished, we went for dinner at the restaurant by the Irving Park el stop before heading back home, chatting on the train and streetcar for an hour about all the things that we observed together in the bleachers that wonderful day.

An Unfinished Symphony

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I had started my freshman year at Roosevelt University two months before in September, 1963.  Attending an urban university offered an opportunity to take in all the surrounding cultural activities.  I often found it possible to squeeze in a visit to an exhibit at the Art Institute or a concert at Orchestra Hall between my classes and my part-time job. Lately, I began going to Friday matinee concerts at Orchestra Hall on a regular basis to see the Chicago Symphony play.

My last class at Roosevelt on Friday ended at noon. The CSO concert began two hours later at 2:00. I usually had a bite to eat at the restaurant in the Fine Arts Building, and then walked the two blocks to Orchestra Hall. I liked to find a seat in the upper gallery at about 12:45. It was fairly quiet there and it allowed me a chance to catch up on my homework before the concert started.

On November 22, 1963, the program listed Bach’s First Brandenberg Concerto to open the concert, followed by Henze’s Symphony Number Three.  After the intermission, the distinguished pianist Byron Janis would perform Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto with the orchestra.

I was so absorbed in my homework that I didn’t notice that things appeared different that afternoon. Very few seats around me were occupied, which seemed unusual since this performance with Byron Janis had been receiving much advanced hype in the music community. Also the musicians were coming on stage in a more delayed manner than the norm to begin tuning up their instruments.

Then, at 2:00, the Concertmaster stepped up to the front of the stage and announced that President Kennedy had been assassinated. He said that the concert would proceed, but asked the audience to refrain from applause during the entirety of the performance. These somber words sent my emotions reeling. Presidential assassinations were events that you read about in history books, not something that you personally experienced.

The conductor, Jean Martinon, waved his baton and the concert commenced. In shock, I could not concentrate on the music as I had so many questions about the circumstances of the assassination whirling in my mind. The short Brandenberg piece soon ended, and the Henze symphony began. About five minutes into it, I felt compelled to leave my seat and ran down the stairs to talk to anybody that I could see in the lobby. An usher had been listening on his radio, and he updated me on all that he knew.

A cold breeze hit me immediately upon entering Michigan Avenue. Stunned pedestrians walked by me heads down and weepy-eyed. The afternoon papers already had editions out that the president had been shot, but there was no mention that he had died. I walked over to Goldblatt’s on State Street to join others gathering around the display televisions to get the latest information from Dallas.

As I headed to work on the el, my sadness overcame me. I cried for his beautiful wife and children. I cried for my nation. I cried for the unfinished symphony that was our President’s life.

Deli Man

Whenever circumstances took me around the Maxwell Street area in the late eighties and early nineties, I always tried to stop at Nate’s. Located at 807 Maxwell Street, this deli had been around seemingly forever. The owner, an imposing black man six feet, five inches tall, named Nate Duncan, worked as a counterman for Lyon’s Deli, slicing corned beef and dishing out chopped liver, for many years. When the family sold the business in 1973, Nate became the new owner. I got to know him pretty well since his cousin Eddie Long was a colleague of mine at the City.

As part of my job as an administrator for the Mayor’s Office of Employment and Training, I travelled extensively throughout the city visiting agencies in just about every community. I loved the diverse aromas emanating from the restaurants in these neighborhoods. My favorites were El Milagro in Little Village, the Parthenon in Greek Town, and of course Nate’s Deli on Maxwell Street.

The Maxwell Street area, from Roosevelt Road on the north to the 16th Street viaduct on the South, from Halsted Street on the east and Racine on the west, always evoked powerful memories for me. As a child, my father use to bring me to the Maxwell Street market looking for bargains and schmoozing with the guys that he knew that worked there. He grew up right around the corner from Nate’s, on the 1300 block of South Green. All the houses and stores on that block fell to the bulldozer, to make way for a new field for the UIC baseball team.

From about 1890 until 1920, thousands of poor Eastern European Jewish families called the Maxwell Street area their first home in America. After the Jews left and moved to other neighborhoods to live, the market remained as a colorful and vibrant outdoor and indoor bazaar. The Jewish merchant presence in the area persisted until 1994, when the University of Illinois, with the encouragement of city government and the power of eminent domain, bought out all the remaining businesses in order to raze the buildings for redevelopment.

Nate Duncan resisted the inevitable as long as he could. His whole life centered on that small deli, essentially a deli counter with four or five tables to sit diners.  He took so much pride in his business. He loved it when the Aretha Franklin scene from The Blues Brothers was shot in the deli, which they called “Soul Food Café,” for the movie.  Nate’s mother and granddaughter were cast as extras in that scene.

In 1994, Nate had to shut his doors. The whole experience with the city and the university embittered him until he passed away in 2006. He could never get over the shattering of his lifetime dream. In his final years, Eddie told me that Nate loved to bring his deli slicer to church events where he dished out the corned beef and pastrami that he lovingly prepared. After all, once a deli man, always a deli man.

Normalization

                                            

 

Sitting in the Burger King on Wilson Avenue, drinking coffee and discussing important matters, Eddie once again bummed a Marlboro Light off of me. Just like he did two years ago in Dixon, where I first met him at the state facility. It was a residential institution for people with developmental disabilities, yet by both personal and clinical observations, Eddie appeared to be perfectly normal.

Plainly stated, Eddie’s family couldn’t deal with him. His father worked in the Chicago stockyards, supporting eight kids and an emotionally fragile wife. As a child, Eddie had uncontrollable tantrums; at least that’s what the court records indicated. I obtained access to these in my role as case manager for the Illinois Department of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities.

The court placed Eddie in the Dixon State Mental Hospital in 1944 when he was five years old. Thirty-three years later, Eddie was about to be discharged and transitioned to the community. I had the responsibility of arranging a suitable living situation for him in Chicago.

In his more than three decades at Dixon, Eddie discovered a caring community among staff and fellow residents. Eventually his tantrums disappeared, yet his family in Chicago didn’t want him to return. The professional standards for these state facilities were lax until the mid-1960s, allowing Eddie to remain at Dixon although he had no condition that warranted his stay.

Eddie earned a little money doing assorted chores for the staff. Everyone found him to be a likable guy. He listened avidly to all the White Sox games on his transistor radio. He developed several close relationships with attending staff who treated him like a brother. His world at Dixon was comfortable and secure.

Then in 1976, Dixon, like all the rest of the state mental health facilities, had a mandate to deinstitutionalize its residents and to return them to their communities of origin. According to the policy makers, it was more cost-effective and adhered to the prevailing theory of normalization. The only fairly decent place that I could find for Eddie was a community living facility in Uptown on Wilson Avenue.   

A year later, I paid a visit to Eddie’s new home. The place was clean enough, although his shared room seemed rather small. He had a craving for onion rings, so I took him to Burger King where we could chat further. He told me how much he missed Dixon and the kind folks who were his friends there. Here in Uptown, he found the streets loud and dangerous and couldn’t establish any friendships at his new place. He felt like a stranger. To lighten the mood, I switched the conversation to the White Sox who were off to a great start in 1977. At least I knew that Eddie had the solace of his transistor radio to follow the surprising success of his favorite team.

Yevtushenko

Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,

The trees look sternly, as if passing judgment

Here, silently, all screams, and hat in hand,

I feel my hair changing shade to gray.

 

The writer of those words sat in my office as we clinked glasses and downed a shot of vodka. Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s hair was indeed ashen gray; his tall body squirming in the small swivel chair opposite my desk. He looked great for a man of seventy. Yevtushenko, the famous Russian poet who penned the haunting poem “Babi Yar,” was about to do a reading of his works at the ORT Institute in Chicago. A crowd of about three hundred packed the auditorium of the Institute, located on Touhy and Albany in Chicago’s West Ridge community.

After leaving Russia in 1991, Yevtushenko settled in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he has been a professor at the University of Tulsa since 1994. He maintains an apartment in Moscow, and travels extensively giving poetry readings around the world.

This was the last of several stops in Chicago for the poet on this busy Saturday in December, 2003. As the assistant director of the Institute, one of my job duties was to coordinate special events for the various ethnic communities that constituted the majority of the student body- Russians, Poles, Bulgarians and Assyrians. On this particular event, I worked with a Russian newspaper and three cultural organizations to bring Yevtushenko to ORT.

My office was being used as the “green room,” a place for the poet to relax before the reading. When Yevtushenko ascended upon the stage, the capacity crowd gave him a thunderous ovation lasting five minutes. After all, he indisputably is the greatest poet in the Russian language in the post-Stalin era. This audience consisted mostly of elderly Jewish immigrants who came to the States as refugees from the former Soviet Union.

So when Yevtushenko opened with “Babi Yar,” you could hear a pin drop in the auditorium. The audience clung to every word of his poetic depiction of historic anti-Semitism, culminating in the massacre of Jews at Babi-Yar in the Ukraine. Almost each person in the room had a personal experience with family and friends murdered during the Holocaust. This poem wrenched their guts.

After reading “Babi Yar,” Yevtushenko lightened the mood with several satirical and farcical pieces. An actor by training, he had charismatic stage presence, utilizing both body and voice to magnify the emotional power of his words.

When the reading finally ended, we returned to my office for a congratulatory shot of vodka before he was to meet the press and his adoring fans. I will always remember him asking me in heavily accented English “Richard, my dear, do you perhaps have a glass of water as well?” I brought him his drink, and he handed me an autographed copy of “Babi Yar.” We shook hands firmly as he departed my office, ending a day that will always be etched in my memory.